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I recently attended a retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County. Along with about 150 other people, I spent five days in the woods practicing a combination of sitting and walking meditation. At the time, I didn’t think that my social circles were particularly “spiritual,” so when I came back from the retreat and told friends about it, I figured they would just nod politely and change the conversation. But I was happy to find the opposite: most people perked up with genuine curiosity. And at one dinner party of about ten people drinking beer and eating Thai food, I brought up the meditation retreat and suddenly I was center stage. My curious dinner-mates  showered me with questions:

“What was it like?”

“Was it hard to be silent for five days?”

“Did you fall asleep while meditating?”

“Did you get bored?”  

“Did you reach enlightenment?”

For the record, the answer to that last question is no. The answers to the others, however, deserve more explanation than I could give at one dinner party, so I’d like to answer them here. Meditation, in the short time I have practiced it, has been both personally healing and intellectually fascinating. I hope to represent both elements.

What was it like?

“Whatever you think a retreat is going to be like, it will probably be different.”

That enigmatic refrain appears at the end of Spirit Rock’s brochure on “How a Retreat Works,” and it plagued my mind for weeks before the retreat. Oddly, I over-prepared for a trip that was supposed to be bare and simple. I stuffed my suitcase to zipper-straining capacity—with sweaters (it was January), extra shoes (for walking meditation, but which I didn’t end up using), and supplies of my favorite tea and coffee (I was worried about nodding off in the meditation hall, but once I was there I found caffeine to be a hindrance, not a help). I also had never been entirely consistent with my meditation practice, so I began diligently sitting every day in the couple weeks before the retreat. I knew that I would be literally meditating eight hours a day, and the prospect was both exciting and daunting.

The day my wife dropped me off at Spirit Rock, I felt like a kid going to summer camp. My decision to go to the retreat was the culmination of a couple years worth of reading and pondering about the big questions in life. I was not going to bring books though; instead I would let my mind rest in the teachings of the retreat. I was going to relinquish my philosophical stubbornness. As we drove up to the entrance at Spirit Rock we passed a yellow road sign that read, “Yield to the Present.”

We drove up to the front of the parking lot and a friendly woman welcomed us with a bow and a smile. She guided our car toward a gravel spot at the side of the parking lot where my wife could drop me off and say goodbye. I lingered in the car for a long moment. I nervously double-checked my suitcase and stalled my wife with small talk. I am not entirely sure why I was nervous. I had been to Sprit Rock before and found it welcoming and supportive. I think I was just afraid that I couldn’t stay concentrated for that many days in a row. And I was afraid to come face-to-face with the contents of my own mind—both the angels and the demons.

Meditation: The Practice

It may be helpful to begin by painting a picture of the primary activity for the week: sitting meditation.

Since the retreat, I’ve racked my brain for a satisfactory way to describe meditation and its impact on my daily experience. Whenever friends ask me about it my answer starts clear but eventually reaches a descriptive impasse. It leaves me wondering if my friends and family have any idea what I’m talking about when I say that I’ve been meditating. I’m not trying to be obscure; on the contrary, I prefer clarity. It’s just difficult to describe without taking you through the basic steps of meditation. So that’s what I’ll do. Bear with me:

How to Meditate

There are dozens of practices from various religious and cultural traditions that have been called “meditation.” The kind that I have been practicing, and what is taught at Spirit Rock, is called vipassana, or insight meditation. The quality of mind cultivated in this practice is usually called mindfulness—simply being intimately aware of one’s moment-to-moment experience, both the pleasant and unpleasant, with a sense of openness, curiosity and non-judgment. Or, to put it more simply: paying attention to your present experience.

Unlike other traditional “spiritual” practices, this type of simple meditation can be performed in a completely secular way. It does not require that you join a religion or accept anything on faith. It stands to reason that if there is something worth noticing about yourself or about the nature of subjective experience then you’ll notice it if you pay close attention, and meditation is one means towards this.

For beginners, the instructions usually go something like this:

1. Sit comfortably and upright, either on the floor with your legs crossed, or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.

2. Gently bring your attention to your breath. Also notice any body sensations such as vibration, tingling, etc.

3. Allow your mind to settle in on the breath, letting it come and go naturally, no need to control it.

4. When you notice that your mind is lost in thought, gently return to the breath.

5. If other things come into your awareness, such as emotions, body sensations or sounds, simply notice them. If they become overwhelming, return your attention to the breath.

6. Stay seated, and repeat steps 2 – 5 as necessary.

That’s the basics. There’s a little more, once you get into it. But for the most part, it’s a simple idea that anyone can practice. It’s also surprisingly difficult to simply focus on your breath, body sensations, and thoughts without either a) daydreaming or b) wanting to get up (I literally could not sit for more than five minutes when I first started practicing at home). It’s often said that vipassana meditation is a practice that’s simple yet challenging. There are many surprises along the way, but meditation instructors offer tips and tricks to help keep the mind focused.

Spirit Rock founder Jack Kornfield has a more lush set of instructions that may give a clearer picture of the practice.

What was it like? – Part II

The meditation center is nestled amidst the beige grassy hills and luminescent green trees of the San Geronimo Valley in West Marin County. Just beyond the entrance, in the first section of the retreat center, is a tiny encampment of modest trailers, home to the community meditation hall where weekly classes are held for the public. Then moving up the hill and beyond an open gate are the residence halls—a series of wood cabins settled at the shore of a creek. The retreat participants stay in the residence halls in simple but cozy dorms. Finally, the highest structure at Spirit Rock and the part that stands out in my mind the most: the upper meditation hall, a huge building with natural wood exterior, a beige and white interior colored by Buddhist statues and art, and a ceiling carved into concentric rectangles. Many times during the retreat I stared up at that ceiling and pondered its mesmerizing geometric purity.

Once the retreat begins, the daily procedures are simple: spend most of the day meditating. Then you eat meals and a take couple breaks in between. They also ask you to work for about twenty minutes each day—a small chore such as vacuuming or washing dishes—and at night the teachers lecture on some aspect of meditation or Buddhism. Then you have time to shower, brush your teeth, go to bed. And that’s it, really. It’s your life—stripped down. No job. No friends or family around. No cell phones or computers. No books or magazines. And no talking.

And here’s the rub: when you empty your life, you realize how full your mind is.

I have read some other bloggers’ accounts of their experiences on retreat, and many of them wrote their experience down day by day, as though there is an actual chronology to that kind of experience. For me it’s much different. I can think of no experience more happily devoid of a plotline than those five days. There is no adequate narrative to describe the meditation retreat because it’s not a story. At best, it’s fuzzy fragments of memory—

Moment I.

I remember the morning. Someone from the Spirit Rock staff woke us with a soothing bell that resonated through the residence hall. I looked around at my simple white-walled dorm room, put on pants and a sweater, and sleepily walked to the hall for the day’s first sit. Upon entering the spacious hall, I removed my shoes, walked softly across the hardwood floor and settled in to my chair. My fellow meditators sat all around me, either in chairs or on cushions on the floor. At the front of the room sat our meditation instructor; she meditated with us, sitting on the floor with her legs crossed and eyes closed, but facing us, silently inviting anyone to join her. Candles flickered on either side, and the overhead lights were turned down to a soft glow. Sitting upright in my chair, I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, and began the day’s task: learn to sit in the very center of my own mind—and not budge.

Moment II.

My upper back: between the shoulder blades. A spot burned into my psyche many years ago when I injured it­­­­—a casual mis-execution of barbells, and the surreal numbness that followed, and eventually giving way to tingling pain, and for which I attainted successful treatment from a chiropractor but which I sensed would someday sneak back if allowed to. Many of us have pains like this—tiny in the grand scheme, and tolerable while living in the abstract daydream of day-to-day life, but when the trance of discursive thought rescinds, and the mind seeks to be in full presence with the body, the pain is gigantic—what was once a single angry protestor easy to ignore becomes a seething mob within.

Or… at least it seemed that way. Put simply: I rarely sit upright during a normal day. And in the meditation hall, although I was seated in a large and fairly comfortable chair with a soft cushion, I had to maintain a fairly erect posture for several hours a day (in thirty to forty-five minute sessions). And worse, there was not the stimulation I was used to receiving while seated—in front of the computer, a book, a movie, or driving a car—to distract me from my body, my breath, and the sensations within. So when something acute arose, like pain, there was no choice but to notice it.

I employed the strategies suggested by the Spirit Rock teachers, to settle my attention on my breathing, to try and “sit with” the pain, on some level—be curious about it, explore it, and often it worked. There is a kind of ecstasy in pain, so to speak. You can sort of get inside of it, learn from it, and let it remind you that you’re alive. I remember times where I would just focus my attention on the pain in my back, and it would seem to dissipate, turn into a strange tingle that spread out to my shoulders, down my arms and to the tips of my fingers.

The pain flowed in and out, but there were moments where it was simply unbearable. I’d temporarily bend in half over the seat of the chair, set my elbows and the weight of my torso on my knees, just to relieve my back of the pain, and my mind of the struggle.

The odd thing is I don’t think it’s something that qualifies as chronic pain. And perhaps it was not even as excruciating as I’d imagined. There were many times where I just forgot about it, the way you sometimes forget what you’re doing right in the middle of doing it. When the retreat was over, and I returned to meditating only half an hour a day at home, the pain seemed to be mostly gone.

I remember testing multiple arrangements of cushions in my chair during the retreat, looking at how other people sat to get some ideas. At times I would adjust my posture obsessively—lean forward just a micron, slide my feet apart or closer together by the millimeter, rock back or forward slightly just to see where the “right” spot was for my body. I guess I’d hoped to find a spot that was infinitely comfortable; I now suspect that no such position exists.

Moment III.

In between meditation sits, we would walk. There are many variations of walking meditation, and the teachers on this retreat allowed us to interpret it our own way, so this is how I approached it: choose an imaginary line of about ten to twenty feet, and walk back and forth along that line, with care and intention, usually slower than typical walking pace, and paying close attention to each step as it happens. I usually chose to perform this outside. The cold January air stung my skin but it was refreshing and it kept me awake. I tried to maintain a rhythm, and I listened closely to the sound of my shoes planting on the ground, and the feel my legs bending at the knee. The cement walkways in front of the meditation hall were set into patterns of squares, and I enjoyed following their lines. It made me think about the relationship between tranquility and symmetry—between science, math, music and art.

Moment IV.

I remember how acute sounds became. During meals in the dining hall I remember the metallic murmur of scraping spoons, forks and knives, and of the slishing and sloshing of dishes being washed in the kitchen. And even the sound of my own chewing, the crunching and squishing that resonated in my skull. It was kind of beautiful. As odd as it seems, we rarely stop to think about the sound of a meal because we’re usually talking or thinking through it.

And while sitting in the meditation hall, in silent communion with a hundred others, there was the sound of people shifting in their chairs, the occasional deep sigh with its gentle whoosh, and the soft internal whisper of my own breath. And one time, during a practice called Loving Kindness in which we began by wishing feelings of compassion upon ourselves then slowly expanding that feeling to others, on the far side of the meditation hall: the sound of a woman gasping in tears, then the heavy patter of her bare feet as she escaped the room. I opened my eyes briefly and saw that one of the Spirit Rock staff members, who were kind and supportive throughout that week, swiftly followed her out of the hall to see if she was okay.

Moment V.

Despite these occasional bursts of internal drama, I actually spent most of the retreat somewhere between fogginess and tranquility. Meditation, I found, is a kind of “work”—of a sort that I’ve never experienced before. I can’t say it was stressful in the way that a job is, but it’s certainly not “relaxing” like laying in the grass and drinking a beer at Dolores Park. Still, there was a certain flow state that I could reach as I moved through the day, in which I was sleepy but not tired, like I was just awake enough but nowhere near high energy.

I can recall a few moments during sitting meditation that may rightly be called “spiritual” or vaguely “transcendent”—that is, transcendent of my typical state of mind. There were times, however brief, where I forgot myself, where my ego melted, and the sun seemed to peak through the clouds. Not to say that it was literally ethereal. In a way, it’s quite the opposite. As in, to dive into a balanced materiality, and stay there for days when it’s only been five minutes. Or, at least it seemed that way.

I remember moments of intense tingling on my skin, after my imagination took me on a ride then suddenly dropped me back into the present: equally aware of my breath, body, the murmur of thoughts, and the sounds and sights around me. Sometimes I noticed kaleidoscopic colors and lights in the darkness of my closed eyes, other times it was more like looking at nothing. Sometimes I noticed the tender ring of my inner ear, other times I was too caught up in my thoughts to notice any sound. Many times I could focus my attention calmly on my breath for extended periods, balanced there like a man on a tightrope. Other times I would fall from the rope—grasping and flailing through the darkness of my own thoughts, then suddenly: back to the present. Back once again to my body and breath.

Returning Home

On the final day of the retreat, sitting in that vast meditation hall, our teachers announced we would be ending the silence, and saying hello to our fellow meditators, whom we had gotten to “know” but not actually met. During the week we had been told to avoid all but brief glances of eye contact with others. In some sense, the retreat had been a solitary experience for me, and it was not until the end that I found a deeper sense of community.

For the first time, the soft murmur of people’s voices resonated through the meditation hall. I noticed laughter and smiles all around, and a sense of relief as people could finally reach out.

I met one man, a tall and slim guy with a short beard and fading tattoos. He had a bit of wisdom in his eyes and a friendly smile. As I listened to him speak, I tried to anchor myself to the present by staying aware of my breath, and to fully absorb what he was saying without letting my internal voice speak over him. He told me that he got into meditation through a group in Santa Cruz called Dharma Punx. (I recognized the name—it was also the title of a book by Noah Levine, which tells his story of recovery from drug addiction, and blends certain elements of punk rock ethos with the ideals of Buddhism). The man told me that the group in Santa Cruz resonated with him because it presents meditation in a language and culture he can relate to.

He said that he had been on several retreats before. I considered him an expert compared to me. I told him it was my first retreat, and that I was afraid that once I returned home I would be no different, or that I’d just slip back into the same old habits—ceaselessly caught up in thoughts, grasping for pleasure and recoiling from pain. To this he smiled and said, “Yeah, you catch yourself.”

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